Friday, October 30, 2009

Trimming Tomatoes

I was kind of a wimp my first year growing tomatoes. I was so excited to have actual bearing tomatoes in my yard that I let the plants bully me and push me around. I knew I was supposed to trim them—and I made a half-hearted attempt—but around the middle of the season, I just gave up and let them run rampant. I was too afraid of trimming off flowers and potential fruit. I got a lot of tomatoes that year, sure, but ...

Those days are long gone now. I've grown into a harsh taskmaster when it comes to my tomatoes—they only get to do what I want them to do. And ultimately, just like puppies and children, I think they're happier for it.

Trimming tomatoes comes down to control. And it begins with suckers. The photo to the left shows a sucker. These emerge from between almost every branch node and the stem. If you don't pinch them off, they'll form mini branches of their own. But these are suckers—they will reduce the vitality of the plant and the overall size of your fruit. So at the very least, get rid of them religiously. And just because you've pinched it off once doesn't mean it won't come back. So I check for suckers every time I water, and I make sure to check from all angles and sides to make sure none are hiding.

Beyond that, there is the question of the vine itself. Tomato vines naturally split as they grow. You can tell a split from a sucker because the main stem may be lobed, and both of the splits will be approximately the same size. Now, it's up to you what you do with these splits. If you want to grow very large tomatoes, prune off all or most of the splits. If you want more fruit, let the vine naturally split a few times.

Height control is also important. At some point, the vine will hit the maximum height it's allowed. When that happens, pinch off the growing tip (or all the growing tips in a multi-branched vine). You'll have to continue with height control once you start. It will continue trying to grow taller, but just keep snipping away new growth. And don't worry about snipping tiny flowers away—because the plant can't grow any taller, it will put its energy into growing fatter, juicier and thicker tomatoes.

As a side note, you know where I got good at this? Growing hydroponic tomatoes under lights indoors. When you only have 18" of overhead space and a limited area of light intensity, you learn to really clamp down on the plant's growth and control it.

The reward for aggressively pruning tomato vines is better fruit, so this is worth it. If you're like me, your initial worry will be reducing the size of your crop. But I think this is more than offset by getting bigger, healthier fruit.

Up Next: Tomatoes the Professional Way ...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Watering Tomatoes

So things are really going well now, and the season is underway. My transplants are 2 feet tall already—the photo here shows the Marvel Stripe heirloom. Blossoms have begun to emerge, and I've started feeding them. You know, I just love this part :)

I'm watering every morning, with about 1/2 inch of water for each plant. When you're new to tomato gardening, you hear over and over to water consistently and never water from the top, but at least for me, it seemed like no one really explained what the big deal was. Well, here it is ...

Tomatoes need consistent water to prevent a condition called blossom end rot (BER). BER is a cultural problem with tomatoes and peppers. It causes the fruit to develop dark, rotten spots on the blossom ends, eventually leading to collapse of that fruit. It's a heartbreaker.

BER is caused by a calcium deficiency in the developing fruit. This is why calcium is such a big deal for tomatoes, why people use dolomite and bone meal and why tomato fertilizers always include plenty of calcium. As young tomatoes develop, they use calcium sort of like young humans do: to build structure. According to horticulturists at the University of Georgia, about 90 percent of the calcium the mature tomato will contain is already present in the fruit by the time it's the size of your thumbnail.

Now here's the tricky part: your tomatoes can suffer BER even with plenty of calcium in the soil. Heck, they can suffer BER even with plenty of calcium in the plant itself. This is because of the way calcium moves through the plant. It's absorbed from the root zone in water, then moved through the leaves and finally into the fruit. However, if the plant is under water stress, water is directed to the leaves because they transpire faster than fruit, meaning that water evaporates more quickly from leaves than fruit. The plant is just trying to protect itself, but as the water transpires through leaf tissue, it leaves behind the precious calcium. Meanwhile, the poor fruit isn't getting any water or calcium.

The worst part is that this tends to happen when your tomatoes are young and still developing. Even a temporary disruption in regular watering of young tomatoes can set the stage for BER later on in the season. So, make sure you're absolutely consistent with the water. To some degree, self-watering containers prevent this automatically (assuming you're keeping the reservoir filled).

As for watering from above, it's pretty simple. This encourages fungal diseases, wilts and blights. So for safety sake, don't soak your plants down. Water at the ground level.

Up Next: Training Tomato Vines ...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tomatoes in an EarthBox

So I finally planted the yellow Azoychka tomatoes in their EarthBox.

If you're new to it, the EarthBox is a self-watering container that has gained a near-rabid following. In essence, it's a two-level box, with a potting medium suspended over a water reservoir. The soil wicks water up as needed, and the top of the box is covered, so less water can evaporate. You add nutrients and dolomite at planting time, and never feed them again.

To maintain the EarthBox, you simply keep the reservoir full and let the box handle the rest. It's very easy to set up, with simple provided instructions. The biggest downside to the EarthBox is the cost: a full set-up, including the company's staking system, costs over $100. But it's a one-time expense: the box is reusable, year after year, and you can grow pretty much anything in the box. In addition to tomatoes, I'm also planning cabbages, romaine lettuce and broccoli. If you want more information, click on EarthBox.

I don't know about you, but the last week has been pretty hard on my little transplants—yet it's also been instructive. With temperatures of 92º to 94º every afternoon, we're at the very limit of what tomatoes can stand. And it's been interesting to watch the different varieties react to it. I'm growing one heat-tolerant variety (Homestead 24) that has absolutely loved the heat. I mean it ... these plants have shot up and are already more than a foot tall. On the other hand, my beefsteak variety (Belgian Giant) is just about ready to cry uncle and head for the great compost heap in the sky. I've had to water them twice a day for the past few days to prevent a total collapse. I'm curious if this will affect the harvest. I'm also growing an heirloom variety—Marvel Stripe—and they have been somewhere between the other two. Not thriving, but not wilting every afternoon either.

Thankfully, it's supposed to cool down by the end of this week.

My last thought for the day: it's almost time to start fertilizing, so this weekend I'll begin the regular feeding program. I'm going to be using Espoma's Tomato Tone organic granular fertilizer, a synthetic granular fertilizer, and a liquid tomato fertilizer and see how they work. I know it's not exactly scientific—these are different varieties, after all—but I'll still be curious.

Up Next: Watering Tomatoes

Friday, October 9, 2009

Go Ahead ... Brag It Up

Since I started this blog, I've been really gratified by the amount of reader email I've received. And wow. Some of the people who stop by here are fantastic gardeners!

So as the season wears on, and we settle into the routine of tending plants, I'm hoping to highlight a few readers' vegetable and tomato gardens. If you have a plot or a plant you're especially proud of, please contact me (my email is to your right). I'll post some pictures and maybe you can share your methods with the rest of us.

Now, one word about promotion. Just as I've been gratified by the reader email, I've also been surprised how many pitches I'm getting for gardening products. If you've got something to sell, I don't mind if you contact this blog, but I do want to say that I'm not taking any free product samples, and if I mention a product here, it's only because I use it and I personally like it.

Anyway, here's to hoping everyone has a good weekend and our tomatoes get a break soon enough from this confounded heat.

Up Next: Planting My Earthbox Tomatoes

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fertilizing Tomatoes

First off, a word with South Florida ...

Listen, I get it. I like summer as much as the next guy, and the subtropical thing you've got going on is wonderful. But this heat? In October? I'm trying to transplant tomatoes, and when it's hitting 93 degrees every day, it just makes things hard for me. So can we cool down a little bit? Just a bit? Thanks.

Back to business. The transplants are doing pretty well at this point, even with the brutal heat. I'm watering every morning, and I've noticed that leaf miners have already discovered the lower leaves of a few plants.

So, let's talk about fertilizing tomatoes. I don't want to complicate this issue, because it's actually not that complicated. I've tried a lot of different things over the years—I've used Epsom salt to deliver a shot of magnesium, sprinkled powdered milk on the ground for calcium, made my own compost and used bagged compost, and used both organic and synthetic fertilizers. The truth is, you can grow excellent tomatoes any number of ways, with any number of fertilizer programs and products. Some of this depends on you.

Here are some basic approaches to fertilizer:

1. When you plant, you can dress the soil with a band of granular fertilizer at planting time. I didn't do this because I added organic fertilizer amendments straight to my soil (the compost, bone meal and blood meal). But if you're using a sterile soil mix based on sphagnum or coconut coir, you'll want to fertilize at planting time.

2. Like all vegetable fertilizers, tomato fertilizer should have a higher second number (phosphorus) than first number (nitrogen). For example, the label might read 6-8-8 or 3-4-6. This represents the percentage by weight of the three major macronutrients all plants need to grow: nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Nitrogen encourages leaf growth at the expense of fruit; phosphorus encourages strong fruit and flowers; and potassium strengthens the plant and contributes to fruit growth. For tomatoes, beware of fertilizers that contain too much nitrogen. Nitrogen contributes to a condition called blossom end rot, which you don't want.

3. Start a regular fertilizer program two to four weeks after transplanting. You can use an organic granular fertilizer (many people like Espoma's Tomato Tone, which is organic), or you can you use any balanced vegetable fertilizer. With granular fertilizer, side dress according to label directions. Follow label directions for a liquid, hose-end fertilizer. In general, you can expect to fertilize every other week at full strength or weekly at half strength.

4. Starter solutions can help at transplant time to get the tomatoes off to a quick start. Fertilome makes a product containing hormones that stimulate root growth, or you can use SuperThrive or a plant starter solution at transplant time. These products contain vitamin B-1, which encourages early root growth. This isn't necessary, but I've had good results in the past with these products.

5. Tomatoes need proper amounts of calcium and magnesium to bloom well. Calcium deficiencies result in blossom end rot, which will destroy your fruit. Dolomite (which I've used as a soil amendment) supplies both calcium and magnesium, and bone meal also supplies calcium. However--and this is important--your watering habits are critical when it comes to maintaining the right levels of calcium in the plant. Even if you have adequate calcium in the soil and in the plant itself, improper watering can still result in a calcium deficiency in the fruit. I'll talk more about this when I get to watering, but for now keep your watering absolutely consistent. Chances are, if you've amended your container mix with dolomite and you're feeding with a balanced vegetable fertilizer, your plant will have access to plenty of calcium and magnesium.

6. Foliar sprays containing micronutrients and calcium chloride can be used early in the growing season. Personally, I don't use foliar sprays for tomatoes, so I don't have any experience with it, but I know that commercial farms use these products. I would love to hear from someone who had experience with either ...

7. Finally, if you're really worried about optimal nutrient levels, have your soil professionally tested. This is really only necessary for in-ground tomatoes. Test results will indicate the levels of all macronutrients, as well as pH and other factors necessary for growth. Follow the lab's recommendations regarding supplementation.

It feels like there should be more, right? But fertilizing and feeding tomatoes only has to be as complicated as you want it to be. I guarantee you can grow wonderful, tasty tomatoes with a bag of standard granular vegetable fertilizer ...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Planting Tomatoes

So they're in the ground now. In a way, the most difficult part is over ... at least in my experience, it's harder to take a plant from a seed to a successful transplant than it is to care for tomatoes once they're in the ground. Seedlings have to be watered once, sometimes twice a day ... they need to be carried outside every day ... and sometimes, they just up and die for no good reason.

But once in the ground, things start to get easier and less time intensive. For the in-ground tomatoes (Homestead 24), I outlined the growing area in old bricks, then dug a deep hole and filled it with the following ingredients:
  • 2 parts sphagnum peat moss
  • 2 parts Black Cow compost
  • 1 part perlite
  • dolomite
  • bone meal
  • blood meal
I next did the two containers (see below). I used 25-gallon containers I found at a local tree nursery. They had a big pile of old containers out back and let me snag two--this was actually the smallest size they had, but you can also grow good tomatoes in 10-gallon containers. For the potting mix, I used the same ingredients and mixed it up straight in the container with my hands and a shovel. Once the dry ingredients were combined, I watered it thoroughly and put the tower in position. The green stakes on the side are pounded into the ground outside the container and tied to the tower. I wanted to give it extra stability for later on.

The next few days will be crucial to get the young transplants established. When you transplant tomatoes (or any plant, really), you should water every morning. With tomatoes, watering takes on special importance because improper and inconsistent watering will actually ruin your harvest. More on that later.

I've also gotten a few letters with questions about fertilizer and feeding tomatoes. I'm going to start on that soon ... even though that's kind of like jogging blind-folded through a mine field. I've talked to dozens of people who grow great tomatoes, and I have yet to find anybody who does it exactly the same way—but people have strong opinions nonetheless.

Yet I will say this: I believe well-fed tomatoes begin with the soil. That's why I put so much work into mixing up and amending my soil. The compost is a natural, organic fertilizer that provides macro and minor elements; the blood meal provides nitrogen for early leaf growth, and the bone meal provides phosphorous and calcium for later. Still, there's plenty to say about fertilizer ...

Up next: The Nutritional Needs of Tomatoes

Friday, October 2, 2009

Day 22: Planting Time

Woo hoo! It's finally time ... Guess where I'll be Saturday afternoon?

The little seedlings that I sprouted 22 days ago are now 8-10 inches tall. They've been growing rapidly since I started taking them outside, and they're ready to go into the ground. Fortunately, the weather has cooperated by cooling off, so this weekend should be a great time to plant tomatoes.

(But don't worry if you can't do it this weekend: you can plant tomatoes any time through early January and still get fruit.)

Remember when you're planting tomatoes to strip off a few of the lower leaves and bury the plant fairly deep into the soil. New roots will form along the buried stem and you'll get a stronger vine all around. After you've planted your tomatoes, water every morning to establish them. And don't hit the young plants with a giant dose of fertilizer (especially strong chemical fertilizer). You'll burn their roots. Wait a bit to start feeding them.

If it's seemed like a lot of work until this point (preparing the soil, building cages, etc.), don't worry. The fun part is about to begin.

Up next: My Planting Weekend

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Staking Up Your Tomatoes

I'm just loving this weather. I walked outside last night after dark into a mild, cool night. Gone was that warm, fuzzy blanket of heat that lays over South Florida all summer. I've been waiting for this change for a while—and the weather people said it was coming—but it's still nice when it happens. That means it's finally almost time to put tomatoes outside.

So let's talk about staking up your tomatoes. I've mentioned it a few times, but if you have good soil and good sun (at least 6 hours of direct sun), and you're feeding healthy plants, your tomatoes will get LARGE. They'll have to be staked up and trimmed as they grow. I've found from bitter experience that you want to build the infrastructure when you plant—it's hard to play catch up with a ravenous vine.

I've seen dozens of ways to stake up tomatoes. Some people without much room even grow the vine up a single pole, almost like bonsai tomato. Others build cages from wood or PVC tubing. As for me, I use concrete reinforcing wire.

I built my cages about six years ago, and I reuse them every year. Each cage is 5' tall, and I sometimes stack two, one on top of the other, for really large vines. I don't mind using a ladder to reach the top of my vine—it kind of makes me feel like Jack and the Beanstalk. Building cages is easy, as long as you have bolt cutters or some other way to cut the wire, and you can handle a bit of heavy lifting (or have someone else who can do it for you).

To build your own, buy a roll of concrete reinforcing wire from the construction section of your local home improvement center. It's heavy stuff and it comes in big rolls, so buy the smallest roll possible. When you get home, unroll it, snip off sections of 8 squares and roll it into round cages, each about 18" in diameter. When I did mine, I left horizontal pieces of wire sticking out when I snipped it, then wrapped those around the vertical wire to hold it all together.

This isn't exactly a fun job, and it does require moving heavy wire, plus cutting and bending wire. But once you do it, you'll never need to do it again. My cages aren't pretty, but they really work. The holes between the wires are big enough I can get my hand in the middle, and they're strong enough to support even the biggest harvest.

These cages will tip over, however, if they're not anchored into the ground. So during installation, I'll hammer a stake into the ground and tie it to the cage with rope or twine. I've never had one tip over.

Of course this isn't the only way to do it. You can grow tomatoes on pretty much any vertical surface that's strong enough to support their weight. One of the best growers I ever saw grew some of her vines along wires strung across her yard. My only advice as you're considering staking systems is to make sure 1) it's strong and 2) it can be firmly anchored to the ground and 3) you have complete access to the vine. I would also avoid treated lumber and lattice, partly because of the chemicals and partly because it's impossible to reach the plant if it grows through the teensy little latticework.

Up next: Time to plant!